Jazz, pop, R&B, on his guitar or vocally: You name it, he plays it and sings it. In what seems to have become an annual appearance, George Benson came to the Hollywood Bowl last week, with some new offerings from his soon-to-be-released CD “Guitar Man.”
It’s an album that, as usual, showcases Benson’s guitar and vocal stylings — this time on the standards.
In a pre-concert interview, Benson explained his “old school” approach to recording the new CD: minimal rehearsal time — something akin to a live recording experience.
Think “On Broadway.”
“Studios have a tendency to kinda bog you down because maybe one person might have made an error,” he explained. “We didn’t have that problem with this [recording at Capitol Records]. We went in — and we picked our songs — and we went down the list. And we couldn’t believe how fast it went by … That’s how we used to make records years ago … and now I know why those records felt so good … because they were spontaneous … There was no rehearsing … You just went in and played it.”
When he’s asked about a set list for this night’s concert, Benson begins by explaining: “I think we gotta get people on our side first. Then once you do that, you feel ‘em out and decide what should I do next … But the first thing I wanna do is let them know I came to play and ask, ‘Is this party time or what!’
“And I play by ear … I have no set list …” He just calls it out, he says, seeming to delight in the fact that his band doesn’t know what he’s going to play “so they have to be on the ball at all times.”
Benson is asked, “Besides performing, what makes you the happiest to be alive today?” to which he replies, “I’m a person who teaches Bible study [all over the world]. And I’ve been doing that for a long time … I teach [them] how to study the Bible on their own. I point out things [they] might have missed or passed over. And that gives me a lot of joy.” [As most know, Benson is of the Jehovah’s Witness faith.]
When he’s asked whether there’s anybody out there that he’d like to pass the jazz guitar torch on to, he replies: “Russell Malone … Mark Whitfield, Norman Brown – although he’s more R&B-oriented. He does have some wonderful qualities and even Jonathan Butler. He’s another one I like … “
Malone, Whitfield, Brown and Butler, all more than competent, would be the first to admit they’ve all followed in Benson’s footsteps up the pop, jazz and R&B ladder to Love Times Love” and “Breezin’, ” which is what Benson came out on stage and exploded into, though it was a funkier, slower, more deliberate version of the classic.
The guitarist then turned to a few of the 12 highly recognizable standards on his new CD à la Benson: from “Tequila” and “Tenderly” to Stevie Wonder ‘s “My Cherie Amour,” Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” and Lennon-McCartney’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
In a nod to his romantic vocal stylings, Benson “had to drop in something pretty,” he said … “Never leave out romance … ” It was the perfect opportunity for Benson’s stellar cover of Bernard Ighner’s lush “Everything Must Change.”
His finale, “Give Me the Night,” made the crowd forget that he hadn’t done “On Broadway.”
Opening for Benson was DMS — a collaboration of keyboardist George Duke, bassist Marcus Miller and saxman David Sanborn — in a concert that ultimately inspired fans to indulge in their tastes for Benson’s smooth and DMS’ funky jazz. George Duke’s wife Corine explained how the combo came to be: “The tour is a brand-new collaboration of these three wonderful musicians … Marcus and Dave had worked together on a jazz cruise ship …” and, she said when George Duke guested with the two, “they had such a nice chemistry, they said, ‘Hey, we might as well go out [on tour]!”
A concert by any one of them, or two, would have been satisfying, but all three of them together was a jazz funk fest supreme. With George on his Dukey stick, and hard-thumpin’ Marcus on bass, and David on tenor, it was hard to choose the funkiest jazz number — there was Duke’s “Sweet Baby” and “Brazilian Love Affair,” Miller’s “Maputo,” and Sanborn’s “Lisa” to choose from — that is, until the trio did “Reach For It” — the mother of all jazz funk tunes.